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The Bogue Plan – A Better Seattle

Posted by Johnine Larsen on May 12, 2016
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Seattle voters authorized a Municipal Plans Commission on March 8, 1910. The city was growing, and they needed a game plan for long-term development. The commission selected Virgil G. Bogue to plan and beautify Seattle’s future.

“Virgil G. Bogue, who is not unknown locally, will draw the substantial salary of $1,500 a month, and be rent-free when he undertakes the agreeable task of beautifying Seattle, under the auspices of the Civic Plans Commission. Seattle, with its $2,000,000 to be expended in parks and boulevards, with its wonderful settings of wooded slopes, mountains, sea and lakes, with its engineer of National fame, is on the way to become celebrated as one of the most picturesque and beautiful cities in all the world.” (The Seattle Daily Times, September 4, 1910).

Bogue created an extensive, two-volume master plan based on a future city “of slightly over a million inhabitants.” For reference, 1910 Seattle had just crested 237,000 inhabitants, and today, the city’s population is estimated over 660,000 (the metropolitan area has more than 3.6 million).

Bogue and the Municipal Plans Commission believed an organized, logical plan could prevent growing pains, lay a foundation for a high-functioning larger city, and foster cooperation between the public sector, private sector, and various levels of government.

The Bogue Plan included:

  • A grand civic center in present-day Belltown. Public buildings and city offices would be grouped in the Denny Regrade, with the center of this wide-spaced, majestic civic center at Fourth and Blanchard.
  • An overhauled public transportation system, including:
    • Rapid subway transit lines to connect neighborhoods across the city, with routes going north-south and east-west.
    • An above-ground rail line between Everett and Tacoma, with a giant train station in modern-day South Lake Union (where Roy Street intersects Highway 99).
    • Street cars. Lots of street cars.
    • An underground tunnel beneath Lake Washington to connect Seattle and Kirkland by rail.
  • A plan for the Seattle coastline, including present-day Harbor Island.
  • A height limit on downtown buildings. Similar to height caps in Paris or Washington D.C., this would allow more light into downtown streets
  • Expanded parks and boulevards. Bogus recommended Seattle de-develop Mercer Island and turn it into an “island park—a people’s playground, worthy of the city of millions which will someday surround Lake Washington.”

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Was it a good plan?

Seattle’s 1912 voters didn’t think so.

The plan was expensive, and the Belltown location for the proposed civic center kicked off a political power struggle. Pioneer Square had established itself as the downtown core, and that area’s entrenched businesses had no interest in watching future development move north. They fought to keep the city offices near them.

When the public voted in 1912, the Bogue Plan was defeated almost two-to-one: 24,966 against, and only 14,506 for.

But the question stands: Was it a good plan?

A comprehensive plan like Bogue’s might have very well prevented our most-common complaints about the city: traffic, lack of mass transit, crowding. More green space would have been a welcome bonus, as well.

“It was a wonderful plan; it was so visionary,” said Leonard Garfield, executive director of the Museum of History and Industry. “But for working people, it was so expensive, and for rich people, it was too much work.”

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“When you look at [Bogue’s] approach to Harbor Island, the architecture, the sort of city-beautiful ideas he had for downtown, he definitely was thinking about issues that were going to need attention,” said Dennis Meier, strategic adviser with the Seattle Department of Planning and Development. “It was like, ‘Yeah, we’re going to grow and we’re going to be big.’

We have grown big, and we’re growing even bigger. Seattle keeps attracting new inhabitants, and soon a miniature version of the Bogue Plan—ST3, 2016’s own mass transit plan—will appear on our ballots. Would the Bogue Plan have accomplished ST3’s goals a century ago? Is ST3 doomed to the same fate at the Bogue Plan?

If you have an answer, let us know. These are hard, important questions for our city.